As progressive rock continues to regain ground in terms of sales and respectability, Neal Morse’s name simultaneously gains increasing recognition in our larger culture as well.
As well it should. Morse has served as one of the most important figures in the current revival of the progressive rock scene, which began to re-emerge nearly two decades ago, since its recognized heyday of the early 1970s, prior to the rise of disco and punk. Over the last two decades, a number of acts, including Big Big Train, Dream Theater, Spock’s Beard, The Flower Kings, Porcupine Tree, Agents of Mercy, Frost*, Gazpacho, Tin Spirits, Ayreon, the Fierce and the Dead, and Riverside have produced albums every bit the equal of those by Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer in the early 1970s. For better or worse, prog (as its followers call it) has been characterized by elaborate lyrics and stories, long (rarely less than six minutes) songs, intricate time changes, and immaculate audio production. Every aspect of the release matters for a prog artist, and the genre tends to attract an inordinate number of perfectionists.
As a master of the style, Neal Morse’s longest song is the baroque “The Whirlwind,” written with his bandmates in Transatlantic, clocking in at just four seconds shy of 78 minutes, the limit of music a CD can hold. It tells the story of a modern culture willfully ignorant of Christianity. The New Jerusalem arrives, catching most citizens of the Earth unaware. This is not just a song, it’s an epic. And, as an epic, it needs to be 78 minutes long.
To make Morse and his reputation even more interesting, he has become an important, if unusual, Christian evangelist for our time. In that strange twilight realm where Christian culture and secular culture awkwardly meet as suggested by the very title of “The Whirlwind,” there stands Morse, beckoning anyone and everyone to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
As Morse admitted in his autobiography, Testimony (Radiant, 2011), the mission field has been rather dry, but it has not been without some success.
Though lacking a formal “altar call”, Morse’s concerts resemble Pentecostal tent revivals as much as they do traditional live rock performances. At one point in a recent concert, recorded and released on CD and on DVD as “Testimony Two: Live in Los Angeles,” Morse asks the crowd to raise their hands in a call and response fashion. “Oh, raise your hands to heaven. It will do you no harm,” Morse assures his fans in the midst of a song, complete with rousing guitar solos, drums solos, keyboard solos, and full-on trumpet. “Oh, we love You tonight. Oh, I thank you Lord. . . . Look what the Lord has done.” It is hard to imagine a similar scene at a Led Zeppelin concert of the 1970s or a Pearl Jam concert of the 1990s.
As a rather staid Catholic, I find this all foreign to my own personal practices in Mass, and I have yet to understand the appeal of a charismatic service. But watching all of this on DVD, it is clear it works very well in the context of a progressive rock concert, and Morse offers all of this with such sincerity that the audience wants to participate. I will be attending one of his concerts in just a month, and I’ll be joined by my wife and two good friends from Chicago. We’re all Catholic, and it will be interesting to see how we respond.
A History of Morse’s music
I first encountered Morse’s work with the release of Spock’s Beard’s first album, The Light, back in 1995 while perusing new CDs in Bloomington, Indiana. At the time, at least in the United States, very few musicians openly embraced progressive rock as a label or a genre. Indeed, most rock bands sadly shunned the label like the plague. A moody and more complex form of punk, grunge, as well as what was called “alternative” was huge in the American rock scene. Since prog had become unpopular in the late 1970s, many groups such as Talk Talk (The Colour of Spring, Spirit of Eden, and Laughing Stock), XTC (Skylarking), and the Cure (Disintegration) had embraced much of the prog legacy without necessarily claiming the prog mantle. Meanwhile, older progressive rock groups such as Genesis, Yes, and Jethro Tull had embraced something essentially unprog in the 1980s, and little hope seemed to exist for a re-emergence of the genre by the beginning of the 1990s.
Then, suddenly, several prog albums appeared on the American scene, including the progressive metal of New York’s Dream Theater (Images and Words, 1992) and England’s Marillion (Brave, 1994). In 1995, another east-coast band, Echolyn, released a prog album (As the World) on a major label, and Spock’s Beard of California released its first, The Light on a small label with limited distribution.
Of these four, Spock’s Beard intrigued me the most, though I would come to love Marillion’s very dark Brave as well.
Taking their name from one of the strangest of the original Star Trek episodes, “Mirror, Mirror,” in which Captain Kirk travels to a parallel universe, Spock’s Beard embraced every aspect of 1970s progressive rock, especially drawing upon Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Yes, Gentle Giant, and King Crimson. The title song, “The Light,” is controlled chaos. Beautiful and enchanting as a whole, it is maddening in parts. Nearly 16 minutes long, the song explores a number of avenues, none of them outwardly related, one part to another. Even Morse calls for a “straight line” in his lyrics, as though pleading with himself to end the madness.
After a harmonious vocal opening, the song descends into musical insanity, with odd beats, variable time signatures, and instruments playing over, around, below, above, behind, and next to one another. Only two things hold the song together: the drumming of Nick D’Virgilio and Morse’s vocal talents. D’Virgilio, though a young man in his mid-twenties when joining the 35-year old Morse in Spock’s, immediately demonstrated his impressive skills in keeping the band’s music coherent with his unique mixture of precision and soul. Within the rock world, one can with assurance list D’Virgilio as one of the two or three best drummers.
Despite his own considerable vocal and lyrical talents, Morse seems ready to explode at any moment in “The Light,” barely controlling his rage. “You may call me Kennedy, but you cannot kill me,” he states defiantly. “I am the father, the son, and the bastard,” he growls a few moments later. Equally absurd, Morse becomes, in early-Peter Gabriel fashion, one moment “the catfish man” and at another “Señor Valasco,” his characters and personas changing dramatically by the minute. For all of this, the song works, the album works, and the band works.
Over the next seven years, Spock’s Beard continued to develop and deepen its sound, releasing Beware of Darkness (1996), The Kindness of Strangers (1998), Day for Night (1999), and V (2000). While each album embraced the chaos of “The Light” to varying degrees, each also increased the harmonies as the anger of Morse’s voice and lyrics slowly dissipated. Layered and lush, each album readily mixed hard rock, insightful lyrics, and evocative if not outright voluptuous melodies. By 2000, many in and out of the progressive rock world regarded Spock’s Beard as a major band. They were at the height of their fame.
The band’s sixth album, the Morse-era masterpiece, Snow, appeared in 2002. A two-disc concept album, it tells the story of a would-be messiah who realizes only after much struggle that his power (and, he is powerful, possessing psychic abilities) comes from God and God alone. A beautiful enigma of sorts, Snow is much easier to understand after Morse revealed that he had converted to Christianity about a year before he began writing the album.
In the spiritually-tinged song, “Wind at my Back,” Morse sings, through the mouth, heart, and soul of the protagonist, the albino prophet, Snow:
And my soul has been kissed
Just because you exist
You’re the blue in my black
You’re the wind at my back.
A devoted fan of progressive rock since a young man in the 1980s and now a lecturer at the University of Leeds, Nick Efford, writes:
I’ve long admired Neal Morse as an artist, initially for his work with Spock’s Beard and latterly for his contributions to Transatlantic and Flying Colors. He was instrumental in making SB one of the key bands of the progressive revival, in my view. “V” is my favourite SB album and also the album where I first became aware of Morse’s spiritual leanings, evident in the lyrics of the excellent opening track “At The End Of The Day.” That spirituality is even more evident in the Christian allegory of follow-up “Snow”, but it is done with a relatively light touch. “Snow” can be enjoyed purely for the tale it tells, without pondering too much on deeper meanings.
Efford touches on an important subject in the prog community. At what level was Morse going to allow his faith to influence his artistry, or would he simply give up progressive music altogether just as Spock’s Beard had finally found its success while simultaneously bringing success to the entire prog genre?
As many expected, Neal Morse announced his departure from Spock’s Beard soon after the tour for that album. Neither Morse nor any of the members of the band spoke much about this break-up until very recently. In an interview with Ryan Sparks, roughly seven years after leaving Spock’s, Morse revealed that at the time he had felt the departure a necessity for his own spiritual growth. “It was just what I felt in my spirit and what I felt inside. I felt like I couldn’t be a part of it and that God wanted me to separate from Spock’s at that time. Getting to do another album with Transatlantic is basically a whole other testimony.” Further, he noted in an interview with Martien Koolen in 2003, he would not have felt right “forcing” his religious views on the rest of the members of Spock’s Beard.
As it turned out, Morse fans had no real reason to worry unless they were or are personally offended by outright professions of faith. After his conversion to Christianity, Morse’s love of progressive rock seems only to have increased, and he’s become the master within the genre of the concept album and especially in its two-cd variety. While many describe England’s Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree as “Mr. Prog,” Morse has equal claim to the title. While Wilson’s vision is a dark and brilliantly disturbing one, Morse’s is joyful to a degree unknown by most rock artists, or humanity in general, for that matter. With the zeal of the convert, all of Morse’s releases have dealt with Christianity in one form or another, and Morse, using every skill he learned before and during his time in Spock’s Beard, has done his best to baptize and sanctify the genre of progressive rock. If Wilson is a bit of a mischievous trickster figure, Morse is the Chestertonian fool, the man who gives his all to God, indifferent to the standards of the world and content to be judged only by his Maker. The world sees him as the fool, but he is, in actuality, a sort of Jeremiah.
Morse’s first solo album after his conversion, Testimony, movingly tells the story of his life and his conversion to Christianity. As he always had, he employed almost any possible style of music in the revelation of his own revelation. Most notably, however, Morse incorporates for the first time in any of his music what might be termed as Pentecostal-style “praise and worship” music on Testimony. Not only does this work, it works beautifully. The lyrics, typically for Morse, are as insightful as they are humorous and honestly self-deprecating.
Regarding his skepticism but hoping to find grace, Morse describes his first real time in a church:
Old time religion filled the air
The preacher said you’re saved
by faith and not by works
I thought ‘that’s good
‘cause I haven’t worked in a year.’
Presumably having accepted a personal relationship with Christ, Morse sings,
Sing it high, sing it low
Sing it everywhere you go
Jesus will deliver you from suffering
He’s the way, he’s the goal
He’s the song in your soul
Listen with your spirit and you’ll hear it ring.
In the background, a preacher preaches and a choir praises. Appalachian fiddles are plucked and fiddled, and Morse plays his spirited guitar with a southern, country twang. After a confession of love for the congregation and its love of Christ, Morse offers ejaculations of holiness, and the music becomes nothing less than a full-blown barn dance as the protagonist is saved. It would be nearly impossible to hear the music without wanting to rejoice in Morse’s discovery.
Mark Ptak, keyboardist of the New Jersey-based prog band, Advent, explains Morse’s appeal:
Mr. Morse courageously sticks to his guns, trying to provide an uplifting and positive Christian message in his material at the risk of much negative press and criticism. But at the base of it, really, his is a motive that’s truly one of love – not just for God, as that’s clear enough in his delivery, but love for the listener as well. It’s a selfless attitude that’s not always easy to apply in the process of creating any music, much less rock. In that way, your efforts are transformed and take on a whole new quality. And I believe it makes a big difference on some non-visceral level during the listening experience. Unfortunately, that idea gets lost or is wholly absent from the debates on Neal’s exciting music.
Ptak, a practicing Roman Catholic and a graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music, is right. The music, as well as the lyrics, creates a definite empathy on the part of the listener. Morse’s voice and music are so in earnest that one cannot help but respect and admire his convictions.
Testimony would not be Morse’s last autobiographical statement of conversion. As he has admitted, his 2009 album with the progressive rock supergroup, Transatlantic, The Whirlwind, is a testimony as well and he also released Testimony 2 in the spring of 2011. As with Testimony, the sequel is a deeply personal album, filled with all types and styles of music, and presenting even greater details about his conversion and, as he sees it, God’s role in shaping his own life, family, and career. Perhaps the most interesting and creative song Morse ever wrote is “Time Changer,” a tune recollecting his time in Spock’s Beard. Several members of the old band even make guest vocal appearances. The song is at once complicated and catchy, with a myriad of voices singing in and around one another, a throbbing bass holding the song together and an electric violin giving the entire musical moment a Kansas-like or Jean-Luc Ponty prog feel.
The story of Testimony 2, though, involves the miraculous healing of his daughter, Jayda, born with a defective heart. After considerable prayer and Morse’s wife presenting their daughter to God as a gift on Mothers’ Day, 1998, her heart problems completely disappeared, and she remains perfectly healthy to this day. “When He healed my daughter,” Morse stated in 2011 in an interview with Hope Unlimited, “I began to be transformed from being angry with God to being grateful.”
Only two weeks before Testimony 2 came out, Morse also released his written autobiography through his company, Radiant Records. Also called Testimony, the book is nearly impossible to put down once begun. Not surprisingly, Morse is as genuinely funny, self-deprecating, and sincere as his music and lyrics would suggest. Long gone are the near madness and rage of “The Light.” Instead, Morse has found happiness, calm, and steadiness in his life.
He relates his own journey to Christ through a series of flashbacks and vignettes. As Morse constructs the narrative of his life, it becomes clear to the reader that God had been guiding and encouraging him all along, yet also allowing him to fail and discover for himself that he was not always the master of his life as he so strongly desired.
Never does Morse shy away from the sins of his former life, but never does he dwell on them in a lewd or prideful manner. Morse’s response is almost always the same: here’s what I did; I was an idiot; it took me forever to discover I could not work this problem out; I surrendered myself to God; and God worked it out.
Never does the narrative fail. Morse has an instinctive notion of what makes a story work, and the autobiography is especially effective when he tells stories about interesting characters he’s met in his life and the ways in which he perceived them and they him. If there’s a weakness in the book, it is that Morse tries too often to follow the model of a sermon or homily. He tells a story, concluding each major portion of his life with a lesson drawn from scripture. The lessons sometimes comes across as redundant and the scriptural references forced. This is simply a matter of editing, and a second edition of this book can integrate all of this in a much more artful manner. Morse has proven his ability to interconnect such ideas numerous times in his lyrics and music, and he’ll readily be able to do the same in a second edition of Testimony. This is, however, a very minor quip, and it should not discourage anyone from reading this excellent autobiography.
In addition to his several albums–solo and with Transatlantic–giving various details of his own life and conversion, Morse has also engaged Christian history and doctrine in several of his other solo albums, all written and produced since his conversion.
In 2004, Morse released One, an album that explains the separation of man from God through man’s own choice and his exile from the Garden of Eden. The album rocks rather heavily, and especially good is the eighteen-minute track, “The Separated Man,” a song that grasps through the very structure of the music itself the extent to which man has wounded himself and Creation. With middle-eastern flavors and significant distortion and dissonance, Morse presents man at his most arrogant, building his own Tower of Babel. As with Genesis 3:15, though, “One” ends with the hope presented by God offering a messiah and making the evil of the fall into something profoundly good and better than the original.
“Listening through even a single one of his tracks reflects the contemplation and awe with which one might survey a stunning vista, panorama, or plateau,” classically-trained prog fan Joe Hersey reflects. “God’s love is simple and elegantly plain, yes, but He is also majestic and beautifully intricate in His creation and relationship to man.”
(Question Mark) (sic; yes, this is the title of his 2006 album!) explains the significance of the Tabernacle and the Temple, especially their Hebraic history in the Old Testament and their connections to Christ in the New Testament. While Morse focuses on the specifically Christ-type elements of the tabernacle, as opposed to a Catholic Marian interpretation, (Question Mark) is as theologically sound as it is thrilling in its very progginess.
Morse’s 2008 album, Lifeline, though not specifically a concept album, presents a number of common themes, especially the notions of free will and predestination. At what point does God allow man to ruin his life and world? Most interestingly, Morse also tackles the issue of politics from a Christian standpoint. His piece, “Leviathan,” is, as he openly admits, one of the weirdest songs he has written. True to form, again with a masterful touch, Morse creates a song that in body and soul represents what Leviathan must be musically. “From Pharaoh to Caesar he grew his blood boiling/Out of the depths of the sea comes Leviathan,” the singer cries, drowning in dissonance. “How many heads will there be on Leviathan,” he poignantly asks.
In and around these solo albums, Morse continues to record with Transatlantic, and he has released a number of live albums of his solo work as well as a series of gospel rock albums. With Mike Portnoy, he has made several CDs covering favorite songs and bands, and he has recently formed yet another progressive rock band, Flying Colors, releasing its first album this year as well.
Morse seems to possess the energy of three or four men. For those who love prog who once worried about Morse quitting the genre after his conversion in 2002, there can be no doubt that his conversion has only increased his productivity and his artistry.
Problems with “Papism”
For a Roman Catholic, and even apparently for some evangelicals, the problematic album is the one Morse released in 2007, titled Sola Scriptura. A full and progful-retelling of the story of Martin Luther in four songs, clocking in at 76 minutes, Morse not only praises Luther, but he also attacks the Catholic Church in a number of different ways, not just at the time of the Reformation but before and even through the present-day. “If you think the whore is only history/Are there those who teach her lies?/Wherever they believe what came out from her/That same spirit is still alive.” While Morse does not identify the “same spirit” corrupting the Church as the Catholic Church, it is clear from the four songs themselves that Morse believes this to be true. In other lines, he sings: “But spiritual captivity it still is around us/I believe the time has come to stand up and to cry/Come out of her–There’s a place where your spirit can fly/Come out of her my people/MY PEOPLE! Not just from the Mother but the daughters of the harlot/Everything that comes from her it must be left behind/Her rituals and teaching smells of death and bloody scarlet.”
In his liner notes, Morse apologizes for defending Luther despite the German Reformer’s blatant anti-Semitism but he, significantly and tellingly, offers no such apology to Roman Catholics.
My purpose in making this album is to open people’s eyes to the idea that the church that started out in the full light (‘I am the light of the world’, ‘Ye are the light of the world’) went into darkness and is now in the process of coming back into the light. When I wrote this album I was unaware of Martin Luther’s anti-Jewish statements, and I considered scrapping it, but I feel that the main point is that the way God used him to protest false religion is still a good example of courage and boldness for a Godly cause. Also, I am not trying to point to only one church that needs to be reformed, but rather that we should ALL look at the scriptures afresh to see what truth God wants to restore in THIS generation! If Luther brought back salvation by faith; the Wesleys brought sanctification, and the Pentecostals restored the baptism of the Holy Ghost, what is there for US to restore? Remember, the latter house shall be greater than the former!
After this, several evangelicals at Christianity Today distanced themselves from Morse a bit. Because of my own love of the Catholic Church as well as my deep and profound appreciation of the artistry of Neal Morse, I have written an open letter to him. I do this not because I condone Morse’s ideas on Catholicism, but because from everything I have seen of him, he is a sincere man, and I believe with a bit more searching, he will discover that Protestants and Catholics are allies, not enemies.
An open letter to Neal Morse
Dear Mr. Morse,
I’ve been happily and joyously following your career since The Light came out. At the time, I was thrilled to find someone embracing as well as advancing the prog genre. As you well know, the 1980s were a dry period for prog. Your art has been a significant presence in my life for nearly two decades. My wife and I rejoiced when you embraced your new life in faith, and gave thanks that you were blessed with a daughter. My kids and I have danced to and memorized almost all of Testimony (for some reason, they call Part III the “Batman Song”), and we have watched you in concert many times. We’ll be seeing you live in Chicago in October.
When you rereleased The Light, I sympathized with your warning “Clear the kids out before you put this one on!” My kids have never heard this, nor do I plan on them hearing it anytime soon.
Sadly, though, I could (and do) make the same warning for Track 1/Part IV and Track 4/Part IV of your album, Sola Scriptura. The music, as always, is simply stunning. But, your condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church as the Whore, the Mother and the “Daughters of a Harlot” are deeply troubling and saddening.
While I would agree that many Catholics—even popes—caused harm and scandal in the late 15th and early 16th centuries (my intellectual mentor, Russell Kirk, called Pope Alexander VI a monster of avarice and lust) I also know that the Church has done much to make amends for such failures and has spent the last five hundred years promoting the love of Christ in opposition to the forces of the world.
I would very respectfully ask you to reconsider your position on the Catholic Church. Please read Pope Paul III’s 1545 letter of apology to Protestants; the decree of the Council of Trent on Justification (which emphasizes the centrality of Christ and grace); any single thing written by Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI, or any novel by Michael O’Brien. According to Catholic teaching, all Christians–Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox–are brothers, though separated.
All I ask, Mr. Morse, is that you reconsider your lyrics and recognize your allies for what and who they are. From everything you’ve done, pre-and post-your new life, it’s clear you seek the truth in humility. It’s one of the things I admire and always have about you. In its theology, the Catholic Church argues that man is saved by (and only by) grace alone. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” (par 1996). In this, at least, I hope we can agree.
As always, thank you for your witness of artistry, excellence, beauty, and integrity. Regardless of what you decide, I will happily enjoy your Chicago show with my wife and two other Catholic friends in October. We wish you only happiness, in this world and the next.
As I write this article, Morse is on tour with Flying Colors. Once again, though, one project is never enough for Morse, as his latest solo album, Momentum, comes out on September 11, 2012. Yet again, it is a work of intense artistry. It is also one of Morse’s most interesting albums, lyrically and musically. Not a concept in the way several of his other albums are, Momentum most resembles his penultimate album with Spock’s Beard, “V.” As with its 2000 counterpart, Momentum has six songs. The first five are eight minutes or less long, with the last song being a 34-minute epic.
With skill and passion, Morse’s new album considers the pace of modernity and our reactions to it, the necessity of appearing deep in conversation, how to weather deception in this world, how one interprets his calling in the world, and the way a powerful spiritual figure would be perceived should he arrive bodily in the present day (I’ll leave it for the reader to discover the identity of the protagonist in the track, “Freak,” as Morse deftly leaves the identity a mystery until the very end of the song) in his shorter tunes.
The epic is, well, epic. As the title, “World without End,” suggests, the thirty-four minutes explore the motivations of a person, and especially whether he or she is trying to shape the ephemeral or the permanent and timeless.
While the songs are as Christian as anything else Morse has written since 2002, they are presented in a more artful, less evangelical “in your face” sort of way. No longer driven with the zeal of a convert or with the anger of a younger man, Morse has reached a point where his faith and the ideas surrounding Christianity have simply and comfortably become a part of his very view of the world and his place within it.
Whatever one might think of Morse’s particular theological views, I can state this with absolute assurance: Morse moves me in every way, as a person and as an artist. When I listen to him or read him, I want to enjoy that same kind of personal relationship he has with Christ; I want to be a better father and better husband; I want to be a better person and citizen. In this world of sorrows, what more can we ask of our heroes? Especially when they use every single gift they have been given to make the world just a bit better, while asking us to follow them into eternity.
Morse’s story is truly the story of sola gratia.